Serving a five-year sentence for an unnamed crime, Cully Briston (Jim Brown) goes about his business as best he can, trying not to cause any issues at all. Well, that's about to change. Sent to see a deputy warden by a guard, Cully is in the wrong place at the wrong time in the administration building. A group of prisoners in isolation cells, led by Red Fraker (Gene Hackman), has managed to escape and take a handful of guards and officials hostage. They hope to buy some time and pull off an escape, but their plan is thrown awry when someone is able to signal the guards. Now, the group is forced to improvise as guards line the walls with every weapon they have. Forced to work with Red and his fellow prisoners, Cully has to tread a fine line. He's right in the thick of it but has to decide what's the best plan of attack for himself. He's gotta decide quick with time running out.
What an interesting movie. Based on a non-fiction novel from author Frank Elli, 'Riot' tells the true story of a riot in a prison with at least a couple possible influences. Now all that said, I can't find the real-life incident it's based on so go figure. 'Riot' has all sorts of positives that just wouldn't seem to work in a 2014 flick. For starters, it was filmed on location at the Arizona State Prison with the real-life warden playing himself. Actual inmates played many of the background and supporting parts. What?!? Brown and Hackman have one scene after another with real inmates. Now who knows, maybe these were inmates in prison for robbing a pack of gum, but they're in prison just the same. The locations, the prison inmate casting, it adds a real cool touch to the movie, a sense of authenticity in this gritty prison B-movie.
Now if you're going to have real-life prison inmates starring in your B-movie, you'd better have a couple actors/stars who can hold their own. Yeah, I guess Jim Brown and Gene Hackman qualify in that scenario, huh? Sorta I guess. Right in his heyday, Brown's Cully is the perfect anti-hero, calm, cool and collected as a prisoner thrust into an unlikely leadership role. He's trying to keep about 100 different plates spinning, all with an end game in sight. Hackman has a fun part too, avoiding anything too hammy as the confident, plan-wielding Red who sees that plan fall apart pretty quickly. Having worked together a year earlier in 1968's The Split, it's cool to see these two tough guy actors working together again. They're the two biggest names by far, and their scenes together were the movie's high point for me.
Who else to look for? Some recognizable names and faces if not big stars. Mike Kellin plays Bugsy, the antsy right hand man to Red who seems to buckle under the slightest push, while Ben Carruthers (who was one of The Dirty Dozen with Brown) plays Surefoot, a wild-eyed Indian hoping to put a knife right in Cully's gut. Gerald S. O'Loughlin plays Grossman, a tough-talking guard who freaks out when the tables are turned.
There are certain things that scream 1960s B-movie though, that lack of interest in doing anything mainstream or familiar. Where to start? It doesn't shy away from the brutality of prison life. We meet a gay prisoner/hospital attendant named Mary (Clifford David), not to mention two other prisoners dubbed 'Queens' in the cast listing. They dress up as women with skirts, underwear, wigs and makeup, and dance for the pleasure of the other prisoners. At one point, Brown's Cully has a great dream sequence where he escapes and is dropped off -- via helicopter -- at a pool surrounded by bikini-clad women. It's so cheesy it works. There's plenty of moments like that sprinkled throughout director Buzz Kulik's 96-minute prison movie. A little overdone but who cares? You get the sense Kulik stood there and just said 'Here's my movie. Hate it if you want.'
If there is anything misleading about the movie's title, well, there isn't much of a riot. The movie is far more of a hostage situation with some prisoners living it up detours. The build-up is interesting throughout as we wait to see which side will blink first, the guards or the prisoners, but it never quite builds to what you think it will be. The finale does offer a couple twists amidst some graphic violence, but 'Riot' wasn't exactly the movie you'd think it would be. Still highly entertaining and a very passable way to spend an hour and a half in the guilty pleasure department. In the anti-hero folk character department, Brown even gets a theme song, 100 Years, that you can listen to HERE.
Riot (1969): ** 1/2 /****